Old men break my heart. I don’t know how else to say it, or what other kind of intro it needs, but I was thinking about New Years, and I remember a New Year’s Eve from a long time ago, when my mom, sister and I went to a diner for dinner and there was this old guy there, alone, eating soup. It was just so sad, and I think we asked him to sit with us. Or we talked about asking him to sit with us – I don’t remember the outcome, but it’s the first instance I remember of old men destroying me.
If you are an old guy now, it means you have lived through some tough times. Most likely you either served in or had your life somehow formed by WWII. If you were an American at the time – an immigrant, or a Jewish or European immigrant probably had it even worse. But, okay – let’s say you haven’t lived through the Holocaust, and instead you lived “The American Dream.” You were part of the way we never were – you raised your kids through the 50’s and 60’s. You were taught to be strong and silent. Your whole family relied on you. Mentally, that kind of had to be no fun. And now, you are old. Maybe your wife died. Maybe she is living, but needs constant care, or – you never really liked her in the first place, but you are too old for the divorce that was taboo when it would have made sense. But now, you are dependant on so many other people. Maybe that wife, maybe your kids. Maybe you don’t have anyone, and have to rely on some stranger, or nursing facility.
Of course, it’s not all old guys that get to me like this – but I invent complicated and sad stories for them. Which is silly – they may be perfectly happy, but something about old men just gets to me. Old women are sad too, but I think I am so used to the idea of women’s lives being horrible that the tragedy of old age seems less tragic. We know all about the horrors of old age, because we are so frequently called on to be the caretakers. We worry about it and it never seems to shock us how awful it could be. Old men just seem so mentally unprepared to be old men.
My maternal grandpa died at the age of 62, on Christmas day, while on the tennis courts during a Florida vacation (visiting my paternal grandparents). I was pretty young when he died (maybe about 10?) and my memories of him are fleeting, but positive. From all accounts, he wasn’t a super wonderful guy. My mom thinks that had he lived, he may have left my grandma and moved down to Florida. I wonder about him. His life doesn’t seem like it was too bad, but he was a stoic guy who had a rough childhood and never enjoyed any real success. I wonder what life would have been like for him if he did live and got to kind of be free and happy.
My paternal Grandpa is about 89. He is doing awesome, for his age. He has a full head of hair, walks unassisted and while mentally he isn’t as sharp as he used to be, he still tells his trademark jokes and religiously follows the Miami Heat. He always reminded me of Willy Loman – this salesguy who is a dreamer and schemer, but has never hit it big. As a young (really good looking!) guy, he served in WWII as a supply sergeant, and fell in love with France. From what I can tell, after the war he kind of bummed around Paris for awhile. He came home, got some sort of sales job and married my (super-hot!) grandma. So far, so good.
Well, he never became the sales superstar he hoped to be. He had a string of failed businesses and his own brother fleeced him. His wife has been an untreated chronic depressive for the past 50 years. His daughter was born with a heart condition and was sickly. She had one of the first pediatric open-heart surgeries in New York. My dad was probably a source of joy, except my dad’s mood swings have to have been hard on Grandpa. Now he lives in Florida and still dreams of a big payday but is really, really broke. His daughter died of lung cancer a few years ago, his chronically ill, wife is more depressed than ever and his relationship with his son (my dad) has disintegrated to the point of no-contact. And what kills me? Because of macular degenration and back issues, my grandma can’t really stand and cook, and my grandma says that grandpa really needs a meat and a side dish for dinner. So he stands there, in the frozen foods aisle at Publix – picking out frozen dinners. I watch him and wonder what he is thinking – is he reviewing all the choices he made and wondering how this all happened to him? Or, is he really just intent on figuring out if a turkey pot pie is a better choice than chicken florentine?
That kills me.